This week marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raymond Nicholas Kienzle, whose nom de camera was Nicholas Ray. While Rebel Without a Cause (1955) is his most famous title, his filmography is crowded with rebels, beginning with Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as the young outlaws in They Live By Night (1948) to John Derek's juvenile delinquent in Knock on Any Door (whose ambition is to "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse" to Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in King of Kings (1961).
Some random thoughts on Ray:
1) What draws me to Ray movies is their human intimacy. Even when he works in widescreen formats, it's the landscape of the human face and body that most interests him, not the geological landscape. When he was a fledgling theater and radio producer in his native Wisconsin, Ray was tapped by Frank Lloyd Wright to come to Taliesin, the architect's Utopian "learn-by-doing school" in 1932. Ray would later say that his preference for the "horizontal line," was his tribute to Wright's aesthetic.
2) I think it was Robin Wood who noted that no one ever gives a bad performance in a Ray movie. I know it was David Thomson who said that Ray had an ability to jolt dull players into life. Was Farley Granger ever as moving as he was in They Live By Night? Was Bogart ever as malevolent as in In a Lonely Place? Was Natalie Wood ever as tremulous as in Rebel Without a Cause?
3) Ray uses color like an expressionist painter. Joan Crawford's vermilion lips in Johnny Guitar are those of a vulture eating carrion. James Dean's scarlet windbreaker in Rebel Without a Cause makes him a human Stop sign. As James Mason gets increasingly grandiose under the influence of cortisone in Bigger Than Life, he trades his grey clothes for brightly-colored bow-ties. Jeffrey Hunter's Jesus in King of Kings wears a blood-red robe.
I'm halfway through Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of An American Director (!t Books), Patrick McGilligan's richly-detailed biography of the man he characterizes as a "human jigsaw puzzle." McGilligan thoughtfully discusses Ray's "divided sexuality" and how it played out in his movies.
The filmmaker was bisexual, which may account for the erotic intensity of both the relationship between James Dean and Sal Mineo and that between James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. (While preparing the film, Ray was emotionally intimate with all three actors and sexually intimate with Wood, who was only 16. Ray might have --and should have -- been charged with statutory rape.)
Ray was a troubled man with boundary issues, a sex animal and alcoholic whose signature shot was that of a character splayed out on the carpet or pavement. His life would make one hell of a melodrama (Philip Kaufman was working on a Ray biopic, Interrupted): He found his wife, Gloria Grahame, in bed with his 14-year-old son, Tony.